IDPF Working Group Improving on EPUB Format for E-books
With the steady increase in e-books sales and the growing demand from consumers for this format, many publishers have had to adjust their business models and production processes to provide their books as e-books. According to May sales figures released this week by the Association of American Publishers and the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), e-book sales increased nearly 163 percent for the month, and year-to-date e-book sales increased 207.4 percent over the same period last year.
In September 2007, the IDPF adopted the Open Publication Structure 2.0 e-book specification, which includes the EPUB format, as an official industry standard. Now, a working group comprised of IDPF members is busy updating the industry's existing EPUB 2.0.1 file format to expand its applicability as a delivery format, and as a cross-reading system interchange and production format. Currently adopted as the standard format for trade e-books in North America and Europe, the IDPF hopes its newest version of EPUB (2.1) will be adopted globally for textbooks, digital magazines, news delivery and more, as well as facilitate increased interoperability across reading systems.
Garth Conboy, vice chairman of the IDPF's EPUB 2.1 Working Group (and president of eBook Technologies, an e-book product and services provider), spoke with Book Business Extra on what the revised format will mean for book publishers and e-book readers when it goes live early next year.
Book Business Extra: What can publishers expect from the new EPUB 2.1 file format?
Garth Conboy: We've just completed a maintenance version 2.01 that resolves some minor errors in the specs and provides clarification. The 2.1 or 3.0 effort is still somewhat unnamed, but to be finished early next year. There's really 14 areas that we're focusing [on] for technical development. Probably some [are] more interesting to the magazine and richer content space, some more interesting to books, newspapers. ...
One area of significance is increasing the level of print fidelity you can get to with EPUB publications--so increasing the amount of control you have over styling and layout and being able to process publications such that they look good on multiple-size screens and multiple aspect ratios without having to code specifically to particular devices ... .
Another important area is rich media and interactivity. There's always been ways to extend EPUB to embed videos, audio, Flash or HTML5, but if you're doing that in the current standard, you tend to know that a particular reading system does its extensions one way and you code to that particular reading system, which doesn't serve the broad swath of content consumers very well. So we want to come up with standard cross-reading systems and mechanisms to bake in rich media and interactivity. That will likely be focused around HTML5, looking at enhanced metadata, particularly magazine and newspaper prism feeds, and also looking at how we might do closer integration with ONYX and the metadata space.
Extra: Do you believe there's a desire from book readers for rich media within e-books?
Conboy: I gave a talk recently at an AAP [Association of American Publishers] meeting in New York, and I think there's sort of a reality that clearly the wonderful things that you do on the iPad ... that [with] any of these application-type pieces of content, everybody looks at those and goes, “Ooh, that's very exciting.” It's sort of the bright, shiny object that's just out of reach.
I think there's a realization that your average trade press novel … what kind of interactivity do you do in it that makes sense? Before there was talk of, “Well, we could do interactive front- and end-matter interviews with the author or forms you fill out to get additional content,” things like that. I can see islands of interactivity making sense in the normal trade press book space, but much more so in the newspaper and magazine space where you're going for higher content fidelity. Embedding a video makes real sense in a news story or magazine article. ... The stuff we're doing with rich media and interactivity will provide a cross-reading system way of doing that.
Extra: Are book publishers ready to deliver the functionalities that the new EPUB file format will allow for?
Conboy: I think we may actually be pretty well-timed in that there's been tremendous adoption of EPUB, albeit fairly simple EPUB, over the last couple of years. Most publishers and conversion houses now are only doing EPUB as it goes out to the sales and distribution channels. One thing we're certainly aware of is there's varying levels of veracity with which the various reading systems have implemented the standard. I hope one thing that will happen this year is that all these reading systems —be it Amazon or eReader or Sony, whomever—will all come to a pretty solid implementation of EPUB 2.0. While that effort is going on, the development group of EPUB is working on the 2.1. So if we have a base by the beginning of next year where everyone has got the current standard implemented pretty well, we can take the next step forward.
Right now, there's certainly variability of how well the standard is implemented. But from being involved in the IDPF, we have many more members coming in now, and I think there's real appreciation for getting to a wide adoption of good implementations of the current standard. So if you do a pretty-looking trade press book, it should look pretty on all platforms. I think that's going to happen this year; then we'll take the next step forward with some new features the following year.
Extra: Do you see foresee this new file format affecting the cost for publishers to create e-books? And how will this affect end-users?
Conboy: That gets to the whole thing that drove us, starting in 2005, to advance the standard and create what's now EPUB. Before that effort, there was an earlier version of the standard that was implemented very differently by lots of different platforms. So publishers bringing out a trade press book in 2003 would create a lit file for Microsoft, a Palm file for Palm Digital Media, an eReader file, etc. There was probably five or six conversions that would have to be done for every book that you brought out. And each of those conversions could be a couple hundred dollars. To bring a book out, it would be five times more than seems reasonable.
You should bring a book out into the e-book space, do one conversion and out it goes to sales and distribution. That really was the goal of this 2.0 version of the standard—getting down to one file. Starting at the end of 2008, you had Hachette Book Group saying, “Damn it, we're doing EPUB and EPUB only. That's what you're going to take.” Most other publishers are at that position now.
Publishing an electronic version of a book is now one conversion. So the price of doing that is coming down, and that puts the economic decisions on publishers: Is it worth doing more of my backlist since I'm only spending for one conversion? I think they answer yes, so it feeds sort of a virtuous cycle. If the cost is down, publishers can then bring out a wider swath of their titles. That, of course, drives up the amount of content available, and consumers see this e-book thing as, “My god, all the titles are there.” That's a good thing.
Originally, we thought all of this would end up lowering the price for consumers. With the transition to an agency model, publishers are going to be setting the prices now. Over time, prices usually go down with volume. I kind of think so, but I can't say we've definitely achieved that at this point. That's really a goal from the consumer standpoint, but as a trade organization [IDPF], it's nothing that we certainly have direct control over.